Do's and Don't's for Proposals (for summer grants and thesis proposals) (B. Zakarin 2010)

Contributed by: B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships,
Posted 2010

(Written for History students interested in writing a senior honors thesis, but broadly applicable)

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There is no universal set of rules for proposal writing.  The following insights come straight from the Undergraduate Research Grants Committee (URGC), which is the group of Northwestern faculty that reviews URG applications and makes awards, and reflect some common strengths and weaknesses in proposals.  To increase the likelihood of success, you and your advisor should subject your late-stage drafts to scrutiny based on this list.

These do’s and don’t’s are more pertinent for students intent on securing a summer grant.  Remember that the bar for receiving summer funding is significantly higher than the bar for gaining admission to the Senior Thesis Program.  That said, all thesis writers eventually confront the challenges implicit in these do’s and don’t’s.  Think about all of them even if your sole application will be for admission to the Senior Thesis Program.


  • Convey priorities for the sources you want to examine.  What comes first and why?  Delineate a research agenda, not a wish list.  It is okay to be realistic and suggest that you might not get through it all, but avoid “this, this, this, and maybe this if there is time leftover.”
  • Mention and document any consultations with people who can enhance the credibility of your research agenda (e.g., archivists, interview subjects).  If your project involves arrangements that are easy to make (local, internet, no language barrier), then the URGC has a greater expectation that details will be worked out in time for the proposal.  There is no slack cut on the theory that you can eventually make the arrangements with ease.
  • Establish a “travel imperative” by exhausting local resources.  Between Northwestern and greater Chicago, many sources are already available or can easily be ordered via the library.  You should indicate awareness of what is available and how it can supplement but not fulfill your aims.  Also, if most but not all sources can be accessed without travel, then explain why the project simply would not be the same without the distant sources; that is, just how essential to your thesis is the remaining fraction of sources?
  • Explain why you need time over the summer.  Is it to get a head start on tricky sources?  Get through a high volume of material?  Work with foreign language sources so you can assess progress in September?  Since a first-rate thesis can be completed between September and May of the senior year, you need to explain how your thesis is so ambitious that it requires a substantial portion of the summer. 


  • Do not incorporate methodologies from other fields merely to seem sophisticated.  Half-baked and frivolous interdisciplinarity comes across as superficial pandering or naïvete rather than methodological rigor.  It is hard enough to propose a project within one field; avoid unnecessary degrees of difficulty and focus on fundamentals.  You can always complicate matters down the road if your research and analysis require it.
  • Do not propose research that cannot be done in the time allotted.  Your methods point to tasks.  Estimate how much time it literally takes to conduct oral history interviews or read legal documents.  Your readers will.
  • Do not leave readers scratching their heads about your understanding of how archives work or how vast collections can be.  It is insufficient to propose visiting an archive or doing research in Gov Docs.  You cannot wander through an archive, and “Government Documents” is an umbrella term for a massive amount of material that could occupy an entire career.
  • Do not commit yourself to a certain set of findings.  While it is okay to favor or expect one, you still need to consider what negative findings would mean.  Remember that the committee is investing in questions, not answers.
  • Do not take a “shotgun” approach that indicates little consideration of priorities.  Pick one case (or a few cases) to study and explain why it is (or they are) representative of a larger whole or interesting in and of itself (or themselves).  You can hint at plans for a future grant or fellowship proposal that will allow you to add cases.